If John Hancock had simply printed his name at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, would we remember who he was?
The president of the Continental Congress is famous for his bold script, but would today’s students be able to read the entire document he signed?
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island is among those pushing for renewed instruction of cursive writing.
It’s been in the news lately as the New York City Education Department added cursive writing to its instructional handbook earlier this year. Several state legislatures, including in New York, are also considering bills this year to either require or enhance cursive writing instruction.
“It is important that young people, who will soon be entering the real world, know how to write a signature of their own to identify themselves, and have the ability to sign a legal document, check, or voter registration form,” Malliotakis said in statement on her website earlier this year. “Without knowing how to read script, students can’t even read historic documents like the Declaration of Independence.”
A few months ago, my daughter was seated at our dining room table doodling on scrap paper. At least that was what I thought she was doing until I got a closer look.
She proudly held up her paper with about a dozen of her own signatures. Cursive writing is something I just didn’t think much about anymore. I just assumed it was something that was no longer taught in schools, like the old ‘duck and cover’ maneuver or home economics.
I was actually surprised she was learning it at her school. It is not mandatory in New York state.
I asked her the other day how learning cursive was going for her.
“It’s fun. There are lots of swirls,” she said, adding that she and her classmates would sometimes race to see who could write fastest.
But are there even more benefits of cursive writing than allowing us to appreciate historic documents or giving us a better John Hancock for our documents and checks? Is there more to it than just being ‘fun’?
Like many things regarding education, there are differing opinions. A quick search on Google turns up a variety of blog posts and articles for and against cursive writing.
A Psychology Today article from a few years ago outlined the cognitive benefits of teaching cursive writing. Among the findings highlighted in the article was that multiple areas of the brain were activated during the learning of cursive writing.
The fine motor control involved in creating script utilizes parts of the brain that do not ‘light up’ when typing on a keyboard, according to the findings.
However, critics say it doesn’t serve much of a purpose in today’s digitally driven, device-filled world.
But what does someone who is actually involved in teaching cursive writing say?
Penny Cypress is an occupational therapist at Schenevus Central School in Otsego County, N.Y. In 1999, she co-authored a cursive handwriting method called “Begin Write.”
“Cursive is taught because teachers recognize it is more fluid than printing and quicker than printing because the numerous stops and starts by forming letters individually are eliminated. Once students have developed cursive as an automatic skill, they are able to produce more writing because the physical act of writing requires less attention, freeing working memory for content, rather than the process of writing,” Cypress said. “Recent research supports this information, as well as other important cognitive connections that occur when students physically write as compared to keyboarding.”
The best time to teach cursive is third grade because students are developmentally ready, physically and cognitively, according to Cypress.
“If teaching begins in September, students can learn all of the lower case letter formations by the holiday break. Once all the lowercase letters are learned, students can begin to use cursive throughout their day, printing capital letters until the capital letters are learned,” Cypress said. “This timeline gives the students about half a school year to practice cursive and become proficient in the skill. It is important in fourth and fifth grade to review these skills when school begins in the fall.”
Cypress said my daughter’s opinion on cursive is not unique.
“Third grade students DO think cursive is fun. They look at it as a kind of ‘code’ that they are learning. I have often wished I could capture the beginning excitement. Students are usually very proud of this skill,” Cypress said. “Cursive writing is a motor activity that can be compared to learning a sport or a musical instrument. When learning a motor activity you have to practice. Practicing the same way over and over again makes you better at shooting a basketball or playing a scale on a piano. Similarly, the forming letters the same way over and over makes you proficient.”
Because cursive is not mandated in New York state, many schools do not teach it. For parents of children in those schools, Cypress suggested it can be learned at home.
“There are many resources available on the internet for parents interested in teaching their children cursive letter formation. Most importantly, students should learn to form letters the same way so that letter formation can become automatic,” Cypress said.
There certainly is an element of nostalgia when it comes to cursive writing. It’s been taught from generation to generation to generation. But the days of letter writing as a means of communicating with loved ones are nearly all gone. I personally don’t seem to remember learning cursive as ‘fun,’ but each time I see the little notes my daughter has left scattered around the house, I smile.
Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 7-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.